Some 63 animals, a mix of camels and ostriches, will be speeding around the course during the three days of racing. Randy Burke, the owner of Roadshows Inc. has experience with the Camel Races since he staged them for a number of years. He is well known in the area for his current Street Vibrations motorcycle event held each year in Reno/Sparks and Virginia City. For many years he was the director of Hot August Nights. Jobo & Associates is run by two localities with a long resume of successful marketing, John O’Brien and Jim Webster.
Looking over the strong lineup of three-day racing brought back memories of the first V.C. Camel Race which was held in 1960. It was a single race, run down one of the main streets in Virginia City and featuring only two camels. The jockeys in that first race were movie director John Huston and professional horse racing jockey Billy Pearson. The two were longtime friends and they had hatched the idea of the race while imbibing in the Coach Room bar at the Mapes Hotel in Reno. Huston, as well as the cast and crew of “The Misfits” motion picture company, were ensconces at the Mapes for the summer of 1960 while filming the movie. Pearson was in Reno to visit with his good friend. Since there was a lull in filming, the two high energy guys were looking for something to occupy their time and Huston casually mentioned that he had read an account of an imaginary camel race in Virginia City. Pearson immediately challenged Huston to find a couple of camels so that the two of them could compete.
Huston next approached hotel owner Charles Mapes to be the sponsor of such a race and provide a trophy for the winner. Mapes agreed and the project was set in motion.
When Bill Harrah heard of the proposed race he immediately wanted to be part of what promised to be a wild day on the Comstock. Accordingly he contracted other members of the Horseless Carriage Club, which was an organization of owners of vintage, early automobiles. He rounded up a good turnout and the cars came to Reno. I recall passing many of them at the turnout on the Virginia City highway, most with steaming radiators, on race day. They all made it to the town on time and the authentically clad ladies and men in their vintage clothing added much to the color of that fabulous day.
Deceased Reno photog Don Dondero and I were in charge of publicity and coverage for the event so we made it our business to find the corral holding the two camels. Entering the small enclosure we noted that one camel had two humps and the other had only one hump. Both could spit profusely, however. The trainer told us the one-humper was a dromedary and the two-humper was a bactrin. We got our share of closeups and then set about to rent a pickup truck and driver so that we could ride in the back and shoot pix of the actual race.
Shortly after we were set to film, Charles Mapes approached and said, “Looks like we are going to have to cancel the race!” I asked him why and he said that while the two desert beasts had arrived with halter and reins that no saddles had been included. Quickly meeting with the two jockeys we explained the problem and Huston volunteered to ride bareback if he could mount the two-humper. Pearson said that he could ride bareback on anything with four legs so he took the dromedary. In the pre-race warmup session, Huston, a lanky six-four, fit very comfortably between the two humps. For all his big talk, however, Pearson could not retain his balance on the other animal. Again, it looked as if the race would have to be called off, much to the disappointment of the throngs of fans lining the street.
During our scouring about the town earlier, I had noticed a tennis court on the grounds of the local school. I asked Pearson if I was able to wrap the tennis net around the hump and belly of his mount if he thought he could hold on to the webbing with one hand and the reins with the other. He replied, “Sure!” Accordingly we went over to the school, cut down the net and fashioned a makeshift saddle (we later reimbursed the school for the price of the net).
The race was a spirited affair with Huston winning by a nose. The after race party at the Sharon House was a lively affair with the racers, some members of the “Misfits” crew, Bill and Scherry Harrah, other Horseless Carriage people, Mapes and his entourage and press from the Bay Area and local outlets. The late Herb Caen, top columnists from San Francisco Chronicle and universally recognized as the creator of “three dot journalism,” devoted an entire column on the event in a subsequent issue of the Chronicle. His headline read, “One hump or two?”.
Following that first race Mapes dropped out of the sponsorship and Harold’s Club, through the good offices of publicist Roy Powers, picked up the ball. Powers was most famous for providing jockeys for the Harold’s entry that arrived with authentic costumes such as a Royal Mounted Policeman, a French Foreign Legionnaire and, finally, a rider decked out in full scale gorilla suit.
For this year’s races a number of sponsorships are available by contacting Jim Webster at 775-379-4787 or email@example.com
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.